Deep Work

Cal Newport

Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Deep Work is a state of distraction-free concentration pushing your cognitive capabilities to the limit. Cultivate this skill and you will thrive, as focusing in the modern era with all the unnecessary noise in the world is like a superpower that allows you to work towards your personal and professional goals.
  2. Context switching from a shallow task (scrolling social media) to a deep one (writing a book note) will heavily draw from your willpower. Instead, create rituals and routines in an appropriate environment to help you ease into the transition of doing cognitively demanding work.
  3. Take the “craftsman” approach for selecting network tools like social media instead of following the “any-benefit” approach. Use the tool only if it has a substantial benefit and is worth the drag on your time and attention. Misusing tools without awareness of its cons, and just blindly following its one benefit will result in negative impacts to your productivity, resulting in no progress on what needs to be done.

Impressions

For me, deep work has been something I’ve always wanted to achieve, but it's often very hard to do so in the modern world which is full of distraction. However, this book was able to teach me the value of deep work, and how important it is to master this skill. If you manage to cultivate the skill, you would be able to produce outputs that no other person doing shallow work could.

Cal emphasises the importance of having a set of rituals and routines that help ease you into deep work. You’ll most likely fail to switch into a deep state of concentration when doing shallow work (like scrolling on Twitter) to doing any sort of deep work (like writing a design document). I’ve mistakenly done it multiple times before, where context switching just draws so much of my finite willpower that in the end I just don't do the work. But, if you have a set routine, where for example you make a cup of morning coffee and head to your desk, that should be the queue for you to change into that deep state of concentration.

Also, your environment is just as important, if you work in your living room on a laptop with your head looking down (whereas looking up on a monitor can increase alertness), it's simply not as efficient as having a set workspace that puts you into the work state of mind. This also ties back to Atomic Habits where I briefly touched on the importance of how the environment around you affects your daily habits.

I’ve thankfully moved away from a lot of these distracting tools like social media. I’ve deleted accounts, apps and now I just never have gone back to using any of them. I can truly say it has been one of the most life-changing decisions I’ve ever made, so I hope others can become aware of the benefits of just giving up these tools once and for all. I still only use Twitter (barely), which is for staying up to date with people I’m genuinely interested in, and sharing stuff going on with myself. I’ve been careful on how I use it, and so far it has benefited me a lot by finding some great friends that share the same interests as me. When you use the platform as you intend, and get rid of any content that an algorithm tries to feed you, there is truly some great stuff that brings me joy.

However, this is not the case for most people that use these network tools. People aren’t aware of its cons, so they end up with a random benefit justifying their unrestrained use of the platform. Cal names this the “any-benefit” approach, and is a common way of crippling your ability to work towards any personal or professional goals. Instead, take the “craftsman” approach for tool selection, by weighing out the pros and cons to see if the benefits are actually a lot more impactful to invest your time and energy into. It’s a simple approach, yet a lot of people tend to not care about the cons, so they end up blindly using the tool and ending up in a state of hyper distraction.

But, if you do decide to use these platforms, don’t just be a consumer, be a creator. Take advantage of the platform and audience these tools provide you, and create any sort of content about anything you’re good at. If you don’t, you just end up as a consumer, mindlessly scrolling and numbing your brain to low quality content. Engineers have relentlessly tuned algorithms to keep you engaged on the platform, constantly withdrawing and giving hits of dopamine in return for you to watch more ads.

Who Should Read It?

I think people heading into University studying something dense, or a knowledge worker heading into a career with a lot of pinging going on (like Google Chat or Slack) should read Cal Newport’s work. Learning how to time-block is crucial for a student, as you would want to make sure you are using up your time efficiently, while also leaving room for personal stuff. As for someone in their career, learning when to be available for meetings is important, as that would set boundaries on who can invade your deep state of work within the work day.

As I always say, this book won't suddenly turn you into a working machine (if that is your goal), it should however introduce you to some concepts for helping you stay focused in a distracting world.

How It Impacted Me

  • Started time-blocking in my calendar as a guide for the day. Not strictly, however that is the plan that I would slowly ease into as I get older with more responsibilities.
  • When waiting for something (like in a queue for coffee), my first instinct is to no longer bring out my phone. It might make sense to kill time, but I should learn to be content with myself and what's around me. So far it has helped me with improving my sense of patience and alertness.
  • I’m now cautious whenever I embark on selecting a new tool (like a note-taking app) for anything. I’m always tempted to download new shiny apps that popup on Hacker News to freshen things up, but in the end it has rarely done me any good. Most of the apps you see are distracting you from actually doing the work, so just sticking with the basics and getting value out of or improving on the system you already have is much more important.

Some Quotes

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

If you suddenly decide, for example, in the middle of a distracted afternoon spent Web browsing, to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, you’ll draw heavily from your finite willpower to wrest your attention away from the online shininess. Such attempts will therefore frequently fail.

On the other hand, if you deployed smart routines and rituals—perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon—you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long run, you’d therefore succeed with these deep efforts far more often.

The use of network tools can be harmful. If you don’t attempt to weigh pros against cons, but instead use any glimpse of some potential benefit as justification for unrestrained use of a tool, then you’re unwittingly crippling your ability to succeed in the world of knowledge work.

We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time.

Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow—e-mail, social media, Web surfing. This type of shallow behaviour, though satisfying in the moment, is not conducive to creativity. With structure, on the other hand, you can ensure that you regularly schedule blocks to grapple with a new idea, or work deeply on something challenging, or brainstorm for a fixed period—the type of commitment more likely to instigate innovation.